A Note on Art History

Bruce Herman is with Wayne Forte and 7 others
Making a Name for Yourself — The Anxiety of Influence
As an artist growing up in the 1960's and attending art school in the 1970's, I could not avoid the tacit assumption that everyone made surrounding artists and their art: that we are to find our uniqueness, develop and exploit it, and then "make a name" for ourselves. It had the feel of common sense. Who would question the idea of originality or singular creativity in the artist? Yet this idea of artistic uniqueness is a recent phenomenon—especially if you consider the sweep of cultural history. The norm was, for thousands of years, that artists were craftsmen, servants of royalty (from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt to the British Empire) not special beings whose "genius" made them a creature set apart—except perhaps revealed in the level of expertise exercised and in the quality of their products. Artists also exercised a servant role in relation to matters of religious significance (from the caves of Lascaux to Chartres to the great scrolls of the Ming dynasty to the frescoes of Fra Angelico or the Sistine ceiling by Michelangelo). In ancient times if an artist was unique, it was in the same way that each of us is unique. (There is only one of each of us in existence, and we all know this, so why make much fuss over it?)
But about two and a half centuries ago the marketing system of art dealers and galleries began to come into existence alongside the birth of a merchant class, and that "fuss" was marketable. Prosperous business folk were eager to have singular, rare, precious commodities that distinguished them as important persons alongside, if below, royals. It was a case of "me too!" for this rising middle class that occupied an uncomfortable space between the landed gentry and serfs. And so, the marketing geniuses of that era revved up the engines of mystique: make the artist out to be an exotic animal who produces pearls or yields special pelts that few can afford. And presto! "originality" was suddenly prized in art and artist and the middleman could thereby create a market for novelty and specialness. The collateral damage of all that mystique marketing has been catastrophic, and more about that another time, but to the point: if originality is the prime value in art, the necessity arises for the artist to distinguish her/himself and to secure market share via novelty. And you can see how this would quickly devolve into a one-upmanship and its natural consequence: novelty must eventually keep upping the dose until it results in perversity. If the primary requirement for success as an artist is tied irrevocably to uniqueness, then the only way to establish oneself as a front-runner is, eventually, to make a name for oneself via strangeness and alterity. Of course, such a progression was gradual, but within a few generations artists were producing more and more "unique" objects that vied with one another for strangeness and an exploitation of the bizarre or the perverse. Early in the last century artists began to seek ever more and more singular expressions in their paintings, sculptures, and objets d'art--and another consequence was what some critics have called the "anxiety of influence" -- the fear that that one's art might possibly be perceived as derivative or second-rate because influenced by a more prominent artist.
But I would argue that art is at its very best, not when it strives for originality but when it consciously involves conversation -- that is, deep connection to both the "dead poets" and all those living. When artists understand their vocation as conversational--committed to advancing a common cause of insight, delight, and beauty--then their work can be freed to be truly their own. Not because it is odd or novel, but because it coheres with all the great poetry and painting and photography that preceded it and is in meaningful engagement with living artists as well. And by "cohere" I mean simply that art is at its best when it is deeply coherent, connected -- in meaningful conversation with other art. As a painter I am always delighted when a perceptive viewer notices elements in my work that reflect other painters I love and admire--both living and departed. If someone came into my studio and saw a work in progress and said, "Ah! I see the influence of Cathy Prescott (or Tim Lowly or Ed Knippers or Grant Drumheller or Mako Fujimura or Tanja Butler or George Wingate or Wayne Forte...and the list goes on)!" I'd be thrilled if they noticed those influences because I am consciously in dialogue with all those painters! I'd be equally thrilled if that same perceptive viewer said, "And I see the influence of Rembrandt, Rouault, Beckmann, Diebenkorn, Guston" etc. etc. etc. In a word, I'm comfortable with "influence" because it signifies genuine connection, conversation... exchange. But how can a dead painter have an exchange with a living one? Well friends, that's the whole point, isn't it? We get to be in conversation with the dead not through seances but through honest dialogue with their work. And when we die, our work can be part of a dialogue with future conversation partners.
Ars longa vita brevis.
Lastly, about making a name for yourself: that phrase is first used in ancient literature -- from the Genesis 11 story about the builders of the Tower of Babel. The architects of that vain undertaking are the ones who said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth." And that fear of being scattered is equivalent to the fear of anonymity, fear of being forgotten. Fame seeking is a reaction of fear. No one needs a "name" who is truly at peace with themselves and their gifting. Such a person realizes that they are indeed one of a kind, but they are not particularly interested in asserting that uniqueness because they have internalized the knowledge "It's not about me." It is about love of the other, of genuine conversation--the ultimate form of which is communion.
IMAGE: Fra Angelico's fresco of Christ's Passion in Monastery San Marco, Florence, Italy.